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Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love

by Tim Adams

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a story about Google in which I discovered in passing that the question “what is love?” was almost always among the top 10 queries, minute by minute, to the search engine. In future Google might do well to point the askers of this oldest question in the direction of Andrew Solomon’s extraordinary book. In my experience of the past few days you don’t so much read Far from the Tree as cohabit with it; its stories take up residence in your head and heart, messily unpack themselves and refuse to leave. Once there, as one, or a dozen, working answers to the most urgent of inquiries they prove hard to argue with.

The 976 pages began for Solomon 10 years ago as a kind of quest, and like all writer’s quests it was, to start with, an effort on his part to understand himself as much as the world. The book seems a kind of affirmative sequel to the author’s previous landmark volume, The Noonday Demon, published in 2001, which explored with poetic rigour the debilities of depression, in particular his own, into which he had fallen following the death of his mother, an act of planned suicide following a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Solomon, a magazine journalist based in New York, begins again inside his own head, with the impulses that made him become a writer – the sense of difference and dislocation wrought by severe dyslexia as a child, and by the understanding that he was gay in his teens; alienations that were mitigated by the indefatigable efforts of his parents to have him live comfortably from infancy in a world of words, and by his own troubled efforts to have his mother and father and others understand his sexuality. This imprisoning solipsism is quickly willed into something entirely different, however, when Solomon sets out on his search for those who make his own psychological anxieties and challenges, his difficulties of acceptance and filial frustration, seem something not only manageable but trivial.

(To read the rest of this review, please visit the Observer website.)